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Is Too Much Tutoring Spoiling Kids?

WHAT’S THE ISSUE? We sometimes assume that learning goes hand-in-hand with getting good grades.  But when it comes to a student’s grades and personal achievement, there’s a metaphorical “elephant in the room”: the burgeoning private tutoring industry. The increased availability of private tutors seems to be creating a quick fix culture that’s making it harder and harder for parents to raise kids who are resilient, responsible lifelong learners. 

The Dark Side of Private Tutoring

Can kids who’ve been heavily tutored ever become responsible lifelong learners after they graduate from school or university?


While there are some cases where a child genuinely needs tutoring, it looks like there’s a development in recent years of what I would describe as “grades hysteria”.


When parents and/or students are more interested in what grade they’re going to get at the end of a two-year program than they are in enjoying the challenge of developing their skills and knowledge, as best they can, private tutoring becomes a go-to ‘solution’.


It seems as if this grades hysteria seems to be interfering with students’ ability to develop the skills and attributes needed to become lifelong learners.


There certainly are private tutors who will take a child on to help them develop their skills and knowledge so that they can become more independent.


However, you also find a lot of problematic approaches to tutoring. These approaches result in a child becoming even more needy and dependent on someone to come in and ‘save them’ into getting a good grade. For example, some tutors willingly write an IB Diploma student’s TOK Essay or Extended Essay or other piece of coursework…for them.


Instead of doing the more time-consuming, slower work of giving a child the coaching they need to have the self-confidence, study skills and mentality that makes it possible for them to do the work themselves, these tutors give in to the child and/or parents’ desire for a quick-fix solution that masks the real problem.   


A lot of parents are worried about what the future holds when their child has yet to show a good level of effort in their school work.


They want a guarantee that their child’s future and academic results are secure, so that they can have peace of mind. They’re conscientious, hard-working people who want to give their child the best opportunities possible. They want to help. This is normal. It’s understandable.


You’d think that getting a lot of help from private tutors would make a child more confident.


The immediate relief parents get from this approach seems to be followed by the problem of irresponsibility and under-developed effort and grit resurfacing when their child moves into their 20s and 30s. This in turn often has serious long-term consequences for the parent-child relationship. There are students who’ve achieved excellent academic results by the time they finish high school.  


Unfortunately, these students often crash-and-burn at university, where lifelong learner attributes and skills such as intellectual curiosity and being self-motivated are far more important for continued academic success than ever before.


There are even undergraduate students who (as shocking and unbelievable as this sounds) actually calling their high school tutor, a few weeks before an exam. They admit that they haven’t done any work that term, and that they want their high school tutor to come in and ‘save them’ with some emergency private tutoring so that they can pass their university exams.


These problems seem to be emerging from a paradigm of private-tutoring gone-wrong.


This issue is inviting parents to ask themselves some important questions. For example:

  • How much tutoring is too much tutoring?

  • Is too much tutoring spoiling our kids?

  • What constitutes good quality tutoring and why?

  • How can I help my child cultivate their strengths?

  • Is my child more creative, sporty or academic?

  • Is the short-term gain of too much private tutoring worth it…if it comes at the price of my child failing to developing the attitudes and skills they need to become a responsible and resilient adult?  



Let me tell you a story that was the first alarming sign for me that the private tutoring industry has gone too far.


I believe that there are certain developments in the private tutoring industry that are jeopardizing schools’ efforts to help students develop into responsible global citizens.


A few years ago, a parent in a neighboring school approached me, because her son was struggling in TOK.


She’d heard that I was an experienced TOK teacher. She was looking for someone to solve a problem. In a nutshell, this is more or less how she described the problem:


“My son hates TOK. He doesn’t get it. He thinks it’s a waste of his time. He’s got this 11th Grade TOK Presentation draft coming up. He wants someone else to do it for him because he thinks it’s a waste of his time, and he’d rather be focusing on other things.”


Now I don’t know about you, but to me it sounds like the real problem we have here is of a student who is behaving irresponsibly – and a parent who is enabling this behavior. How can a student who disrespects academic honesty be on their way to becoming a responsible global citizen?


This is a problem. How can students grow up to become responsible global citizens, if they learn to avoid doing the things they hate?


It seems as if the burgeoning private tutoring industry is creating a quick-fix culture that makes it harder and harder for parents to raise kids who are independent, resilient, responsible lifelong learners.


More and more parents feel a pressure to pay for someone do their kid’s work for them. All for what? For a certain university’s brand name to go on their child’s CV?


I’ve heard of many other stories that reveal how dark and big this “elephant in the room” has become. For example, an IB Coordinator once confessed that it was the supplementary income he got from his secondary income as a TOK Essay “tutor” (“Of course, what they’re really paying you for is to write the essay for them”) that allowed him to build his dream house by the beach, over the course of a 20 year period.


Someone else once told me of a kid they know in another IB school whose parents paid someone E2,000 for someone to write their child’s TOK Essay for them…because she couldn’t be bothered to write it herself.


In the process, there are kids who’re getting the message that failure is so intolerable that they are to achieve excellence at all costs, even if it means coming at the cost of their own integrity.


It looks like there’s a subculture of private tutors who are willing to compromise the very fabric of academic honesty on which the institutions of mainstream education are built, in order to achieve a bigger buck.


My initial reaction was these are surely simply a few “rotten apples” in the private tutoring industry.


But I think that if there’s one thing we can learn from Matthew Syed’s phenomenal book, Black Box Thinking, it’s this: finger-pointing and blaming certain individuals in an industry is never going to lead to the kind of systemic reform and cultural reform we need to go beyond looking at the ‘tip of the iceberg’.


It’s time we take a dive into some of the deeper issues at play.


This was a difficult article for me to write, because there are a lot of teacher worldwide who feel pushed into supplementing our income through private tutoring.


There are teachers right now who are working night shifts as tutors, because it’s the only way they can put money aside to be able to send their kids to college. They’re responsible parents who choose to work two jobs for years on end, because they want to prevent seeing their kids coming out of university burdened by debt.


I feel great compassion for the emotional and financial pressures many teachers around the world are experiencing right now.


Some of us have left full-time employment as classroom teachers, because we were unhappy with the pay and conditions, or because we’re tired of working in a toxic school environment. For others, private tutoring is the only source of income.


In some cases, private tutoring is a necessary way to make ends meet. In others, it’s a way for teachers to experience a satisfactory quality of life.


I also have a tremendous amount of compassion for the parents who come to me feeling lost, angry and confused with what’s going on in mainstream education and with the private tutoring industry. These are parents who are trying to figure out what’s the right thing to do to help their child process their school-related stress with minimal – if any – private tutoring at all. They’re worried about what the future holds for their child if they give in to the trend of trying to solve the problem with too much tutoring. These parents are well aware of the dark side of the private tutoring industry, and they’re looking for alternative solutions to their child’s school-related stress.


I can only imagine how hard it must be growing up in a world where you’re forced to start your homework at 10pm at night, because of how much private tutoring you’ve got to do when you get home from school.


I’m lucky to have gone to school at a time when the private tutoring industry in IB schools was still in its infancy. This gave me the opportunity to face my fears head-on and accept my study responsibilities so that I could overcome the academic challenges I had to overcome in order to achieve my goals.


Can you relate?


Eleni Vardaki Youth Mentor and Workshop Leader

Eleni Vardaki is a Middle School and High School teacher, turned professional Youth Mentor for Stress Relief and EFT Practitioner. She offers private online support services for students, parents, and teachers who feel very stressed and overwhelmed.